As we have discussed before, we quite like what is known as the ‘bathroom book’ – that is, a disposably entertaining collection of short-burst pieces, usually with a humorous bent that is designed to be read during fleeting moments of spare time and relaxation – while taking a dump, for example. Books that you can dip in and out of without commitment to take your mind off the strain of a vigorous poo, perhaps. Or if you are being a bit more civilised, to read a few pages of before nodding off, safe in the knowledge that you won’t have to concentrate or remember the story so far. The kind of book you can give as a gift when you can’t think of anything else, which is why bookshops are full of them in the run-up to Christmas.
This might be lightweight stuff, but let’s not pretend that such throwaway content is easy to knock out. There’s a skill to this sort of thing, getting everything just right – the length, the humour, the theme. I’d say that these books might well be as difficult to write as a novel; or at least, as difficult to do well.
The Becket List, by Henry Becket, does its best and on paper is just the thing – a series of grumpy old man complaints about the modern world and what are trivial but persistent annoyances. Don’t we all love to moan about ‘first world problems’, even now as the world burns around us? Of course we do – being irritated by not being able to find the right charger for your phone is an oddly reassuring annoyance, a slice of trivial normality that we all need more than ever. So Becket’s book seemed just the thing when I read the press release. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Becket – a former TV commercials director, ad agency man and copywriter – certainly finds a plethora of things to be irked by, with his complaints rarely lasting more than a page – so that’s several hundred irritations throughout the book, in alphabetical order and cross-referenced. But as I randomly open it to find an example, I find myself on ‘Merlot’, which I’m sure some people are very annoyed by, but which feels less a first world problem and more a middle-class one. Now, I’m not suggesting that wine is strictly the domain of middle-class people, obviously – but it seems awfully trivial, even by awfully trivial standards, to be worked up about. And it’s not simply the subject – I’ll concede that the Merlot entry is not a typical entry – but the approach. Frankly, Becket is rather too polite. The book is weirdly restrained – more a dinner party whine (and dinner parties, notably, are not included) than a full-throttle Victor Meldrew or Basil Fawlty rage against the machine. The fact that this book asterisks out swear words (though oddly inconsistently, which suggests an author rather than publisher decision) simply reinforces the lack of vitriol at work here. This is less an angry rant and more a mild moan, and is less effective as a result. What you want is righteous outrage, but what you get feels more like a whinging know-it-all complaining that people don’t do barbeques properly. Even Becket’s author photo on the cover shows his smiling awkwardly rather than scowling in barely contained fury – what’s that about?
Obviously, among a good few hundred entries, there will be plenty for anyone to nod along too, and there’s some mild amusement to be had here. If ease of reading is the prerequisite of such books, then this fits the bill on that front at least. But what we really need from a book like this is unrestrained, uncontrolled fury at a world gone mad, and instead we get some mild tutting about South Kensington and Sourdough Bread, which frankly feels a bit ripe from someone who also moans about oysters that refuse to open.
The Becket List is published by Red Door Press.